08/21/2006 11:00PM

Ready when opportunity knocked

"I'd prefer to ride a horse even-money in the race with pressure rather than a 50-1 shot with no pressure because it's more fun when you ride with pressure." - Javier Castellano

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Javier Castellano may not have been the first choice to ride some of the best horses to run in North America the last few years, but he has certainly been the right choice.

The path to the winner's circle aboard the likes of Ghostzapper, Bellamy Road, Pine Island, and Bernardini - whom Castellano will ride as a prohibitive favorite in Saturday's $1 million Travers - has been a lot less circuitous than the road Castellano took to get the mounts on those horses.

But at age 28, and having ridden in this country fewer than 10 years, the Venezuelan-born Castellano is, for now, fine with his place in the pecking order.

"I'm very comfortable with that because you never know where the good horses come from," Castellano said recently at Saratoga, where his 17 wins put him a tie for seventh-place in the tightly bunched jockey standings.

Castellano came to New York from Florida in 2001 and won his first two Grade 1 stakes that fall with Exogenous in the Gazelle and Beldame. With that first taste of Grade 1 success, Castellano wanted more. He became motivated to get on horses in the mornings even for trainers who would seldom use him in the afternoon. That included Bobby Frankel, who let Castellano breeze horses in the mornings that Jerry Bailey, Edgar Prado, or John Velazquez would ride in the afternoon.

But when Bailey opted not to ride Ghostzapper in a race at Belmont in June 2003, Frankel gave Castellano the mount. All Castellano did was guide Ghostzapper to 8 wins from 9 starts over two seasons, including a victory in the 2004 Breeders' Cup Classic that propelled him to Horse of the Year.

At the end of 2004, Castellano's brother Abel, a fellow jockey, told him about a horse he had won on twice named Bellamy Road, who at the time was trained by Michael Dickinson. The colt was transferred to Nick Zito for his 3-year-old season.

Castellano was at Palm Meadows one morning when he noticed the horse and asked Zito if he could ride him whenever he was going to run. Zito had planned to use Edgar Prado in a March 12 allowance race, but Prado was committed to ride Dearest Mon for Rick Violette. Though Dearest Mon went off the 4-5 favorite in that race, Castellano rode Bellamy Road to a 15 3/4-length victory. Castellano would go on to ride Bellamy Road to a 17 1/2-length victory in the Wood Memorial, making him the favorite for the Kentucky Derby, where he finished seventh.

Perhaps Castellano's kindest twist of fate came with Bernardini. Prado had ridden Bernardini to victory in a maiden race at Gulfstream on March 4 and was set to ride him back in a first-level allowance race at Aqueduct on April 28, the day before the Grade 3 Withers.

But when the Withers came up a short field, Tom Albertrani, the trainer of Bernardini, decided to skip the allowance and run in the Withers. Prado was already committed to ride Luxembourg in the Withers. Castellano was supposed to ride Chatain for trainer Angel Penna. Albertrani was going to use Eibar Coa, with the provision that Castellano would ride if he came open.

Chatain got sick a few days before the Withers, thus, Castellano picked up the mount on Bernardini.

The morning of the Withers, Castellano flew from Lexington, Ky., to New York and coincidentally on the same flight were Albertrani and Jim Bell, the racing manager for Darley Stable, the owner-breeder of Bernardini. Bell, who is normally low key, spoke with Castellano.

"He said, 'Honestly, I'm not [teasing] you, that horse is a really, really good horse,' " Castellano recalled Bell saying. "He can run, enjoy the trip, you can't lose.' I was thinking, 'Wow, this has got to be a good horse.' "

Castellano said he was impressed with Bernardini the moment he climbed on his back.

"He was classy in the post parade, perfect. He goes to the gate, perfect, beautiful," Castellano said. "He handled the track beautiful. And when I asked him, he took off by himself. He did everything perfect. The most important thing about that horse is that he's classy."

A few days later, Albertrani told Castellano that Bernardini was going to run in the Preakness.

Everything went perfect that day for Bernardini, who romped to a 5 1/4-length win. Unfortunately, his victory was overshadowed by Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro's career-ending injury suffered early in the race.

"It was frustrating, I wanted to celebrate; I won my first Triple Crown race, but at the same time I can't celebrate too much because I don't want to hurt people's feelings," Castellano said. "It was not the best moment to enjoy."

Castellano was certainly able to enjoy the Jim Dandy. Castellano basically just held onto the reins while Bernardini galloped around the track for a nine-length victory.

"He rode the horse that day looking ahead for the Travers; he didn't ask the horse for any more than he needed to, he just throttled him down the lane," Albertrani said. "It was a good heads up ride on his part to keep the horse fresh for the next race."

Castellano knows he will be the primary focus in Saturday's race, and he relishes the opportunity to showcase his and Bernardini's talents.

"I'd prefer to ride a horse even-money in the race with pressure rather than a 50-1 shot with no pressure because it's more fun when you ride with pressure," Castellano said. "I want to show the people my talent, my ability."

Castellano demonstrated his ability winning last Saturday's Grade 1 Alabama aboard Pine Island with a heady ride. Though Castellano has ridden Pine Island in all five of her starts, someone else was scheduled to ride in her debut race. But when a maiden race at Gulfstream split into two divisions, trainer Shug McGaughey found himself needing a rider and went with Castellano.

"I think the time's come that he's a first-string rider," McGaughey said. "Another thing in his corner is Mike Kelly is an excellent agent, excellent guy."

"He's a good rider, he's a quality guy, and that's why you finish with him," Zito said. "He's a lucky kid because he's a good kid."